Spanish book talk

Reading in spanish

Katie Jacoby shows her bookworm side with some useful reading vocab


You’re reading this article right now, so I know we have at least one thing in common: we like to read. With the city’s annual book fair just around the corner, I thought we could peruse some useful reading vocabulary so you never get tongue-tied when recommending your favourite novels or skewering some awful potboiler you unfortunately got suckered into reading.

First, the actual architecture of a physical libro. The cover is la portada or la carátula, the back cover la contraportada, and the spine is el lomo (back in Spanish). The dust jacket is la funda or la sobrecubierta, and the book flap is la solapa. Inside, we might find una dedicatoria, or dedication, un prólogo, or un epílogo. If there’s a table of contents, call it el índice or la tabla de contenido.

A big, fat, heavy book is called un mamotreto (this word is used for a big, fat anything that goes on and on).

Now to the nuts and bolts of stories that you’ll want to use as you describe what you’re reading. Everybody asks the same thing first: what’s it about? Or, ¿de qué se trata? Use tratarse de or tratar sobre to explain the plot (la trama or el argumento):

Se trata de un hombre que un día amanece convertido en un enorme insecto. 

You’re likely to want to say where the story takes place. Use ambientarse or situarse to say where a book is set:

Se ambienta en la Bogotá de la era colonial. 

The characters are los personajes. Then, the classic setup is introducción, nudo/clímax, and desenlace. Exposition and rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Hopefully the author will throw in some giros, or plot twists, to keep things interesting. Useful verbs for describing a story include relatar and contar for to tell/narrate, retratar for to portray/depict, and entrelazar and entretejer for to interweave. When you’re all done, you’ve reached el final.

Now you settle in to your comfy chair and try to sink your teeth into the book you’re reading. You might even finish it de un tirón/en una sentada. That is, straight through or in one sitting. It was unputdownable. And maybe that’s because it was vertiginoso, or fast-paced (literally, dizzying). Maybe la prosa, or the writing, was exquisite and compelled you forward. Or maybe the book was simply breve, or short (not corto). Whatever it was, it definitely hooked you: te enganchó, te atrapó.

Can’t get into it? That’s OK. You’ll want to say, lo dejé en la página 41, or you can say, lo dejé empezado. Maybe the book or author is sobrevalorado, or overrated.

You may be able to call a bad movie here un hueso and call it a day, but that’s simply not going to cut it among bookworms (ratones de biblioteca). You need some thoughtful, vivid, and fancy language to describe your antipathy. Naturally, much of this vocabulary can also be used to talk about films.

If it was predictable, predecible. Cliche? Trillado. Dull and lacklustre? Insípido or insulso. Now, here’s a really good accusation that is levelled all the time: inverosímil. That is, far-fetched and not believable. Traído por los cabellos is another way of saying the same thing. Say empalagoso (sappy) or cursi (cheesy) if you were rolling your eyes the whole time. If you were rolling your eyes at the author’s obvious bias, describe it as sesgado. A ladrillo is a seemingly never-ending, slow-moving, and boring book, and it also gets turned into a very Colombian adjective: ladrilludo. Brick-tastic. Criticising books was never so much fun.

Now, what about praise for good books? Ameno is a mild but sincere way of saying that a book was enjoyable and entertaining. It can also refer to light reading. If the subject matter or style were groundbreaking, say innovador. If it was really thought-provoking, say da mucho que pensar. Agudo indicates you found it clever, sharp, or insightful. Ingenioso is similar. Conmovedor means it moved you. If you read in a review that a book had a trama bien urdida, it means the plot was well crafted. And to deliver the highest praise for a book that was breathtakingly brilliant, use magistral.

Lastly, you’ve probably noticed that people often use leerse when stating that they read a book in the past:

Yo me leí Cien años de soledad cuando estaba de vacaciones en México. 

This is called the dativo aspectual or dativo intensivo in Spanish, and it just emphasises that you completed an activity.

So many books, so little time; likewise, so many words and so little space. This will definitely get you started, though. Thanks for reading; hope there was nothing brick-like about it! I also hope you’re taking advantage of all the amazing independent bookstores here in Bogotá and enjoying lots of new stories in addition to the vocabulary treasures within.


Katie Jacoby is a Spanish-English translator and has been in Colombia for three years. Feel free to leave her a comment or ideas for future columns on her language website, vocabat.com.

Leave a Reply